Sunday, November 22, 2009

Farm Things I Learned Today and Other Notes on Growing Your Own Food

Today I slaughtered, scalded, plucked, and dressed out 2 heritage breed turkeys for our Thanksgiving dinners. Not only have these turkeys led happy, healthy lives, but raising them and processing myself makes me feel very appreciative of how fortunate we are. We really lose something when we buy our food wrapped in plastic, shipped to us from an anonymous factory somewhere. We have become so many layers removed that we forget what really goes into the food that goes into our (and our children's) bodies.

Anyway - enough soapbox.

Things I learned / relearned today:

1) Water management is key. If everything else goes perfectly and you don't have your water needs under control, your whole experience will suck. You will need a large tub of hot water, a canning pot sized container of ice water, and clean, fresh water (like from a garden hose). Get your water straight and think it through before you get started, and everything else falls into line.

2) Start your fire early. You need that big tub of water HOT before you can scald the birds, and you can't do any plucking or cleaning until then. Start your fire and build some coals, then put some fresh wood on before putting your tub on.

3) 3/4 full is PLENTY of water in the scalding tub. Any more than that, and water sloshes over the edge and puts out your fire. That sucks. Also, the more water in the tub, the longer it takes to heat.

4) It is worthwhile to invest in or build a killing cone. If you cut the throat of or chop the head off a turkey that you're holding or have strung up by the feet, it will start flapping furiously and spray a fount of blood for a good (no exaggeration) 10 feet in every direction. It looks like something out of a zombie movie, and the death throes for turkeys last a solid minute or two, which is a long time when you're holding a flapping blood sprinkler in one hand and wiping your eyes with the other. If you don't have a killing cone, a wooden ledge under your chopping block works well - just route the bird's neck under the ledge and it will bleed out down there.

5) A good scald is critical to how you spend the next hour of your life. Using a thermometer (meat or candy), get the water up to a good 140 - 150 F. Then hold the turkey by the feet and use the leverage of the legs to dunk the bird, pulling it up and down several times to wet the underfeathers. TO BE TRIED - adding some soap (Dawn, etc) to the water should make it wet better and cut some of the feather oils, helping to get a good scald.

6) You CAN NOT get a good scald if your water isn't hot enough. You are not saving any time by not waiting for the water temp to come up. Either work on your fire, get something to drink - something. Don't scald too early - you'll regret it.

7) With a good scald, plucking is easy. You know you have a good scald when the big feathers on the wing or the tail pull out easily. Until they do, you don't have a good scald. Let me reiterate how important a good scald is on the rest of your day. Seriously.

8) A .22 to the head works well for dispatching a turkey, but you don't get a good bleed out. Some people prefer to slit the throat, which probably works well in a killing cone. For me, a machete on a large block works well, with a caveat that a decapitated turkey head is about the grossest, strangest feeling thing in the world to pick up off the ground or the block. At least the eyes close.

9) After scalding, with a good scald the feathers zip right off. Problem is, the feathers are wet and so are your hands, so the feathers stick to your hands. Back to water management - having a hose close by is tremendously helpful.

10) Keeping your turkeys away from food for 12 - 24 hours works well to make sure their crop is empty. This is a pocket of food they just ate. It's not really a big deal if the crop is full, but you'll have to dig out a big handful of corn and grass while you're dressing out the bird. Easy if you have a hose. See why I keep bringing up water management?

11) You'll have to cut the neck again during processing. I don't know the best way to do this. I kind of cut it back towards the breast and then wring it around. It is supposed to make good stock, but right now I'm throwing them away. Speaking of -

12) Prepare a small or medium sized trash can, and line it with a bag. Put your feathers and entrails here, then when you're done you can just tie it up and put it in the can. You can always use the entrails and feathers for other things - your call. I throw them away for simplicity.

14) Cutting the tendons around the knee makes the feet come off MUCH easier. Supposedly the feet make good dog treats, but I'm not breaking up any Great Dane fights in the middle of processing, so I throw them away, too.

13) Get a good field dressing knife. Having the right tool makes a WORLD of difference. Mine has finger holes and hangs from a lanyard around my neck - very well designed.

14) Birds have one all-purpose hole, called a vent. Cut all the way around it, and be careful not to cut too deeply into the body cavity. You don't want to puncture that stuff, but if you do, at least you have a hose nearby. You'll have to work a lot of the membranes inside free with your hand, and when you do it right you can pull out the whole intestinal tract and most of the organs all at one time. Today I even got the windpipe, all in one bunch.

15) It's a good idea to examine the organs as you pull it out to make sure you have a healthy bird. Dogs and cats also like the liver, kidneys, and heart, but to minimize animal drama I disposed of them along with the rest of the entrails.

16) The lungs are the toughest part to get out. They are bright pink and the consistency of, well, lungs - kind of a cross between tofu, jello, and livermush. You'll need to either buy a tool called a lung scraper or just pull them out with your hands. You kind of have to scrape your fingertips across the inside of the ribs to get them all, then rinse. No big deal, just something to expect.

17) Give thanks to the bird before you dispatch him, and mean it. You've raised him, fed him, and given him a good life, and now he will feed your family for a time.

18) It's a lot of work to grow your own food this way.

19) It's worth it.